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Guide to Research and Writing in Music History

General Principles for Writing about Music

One of the most important goals in studying the history of music is to learn to form and to express our own ideas about the music we hear and perform. Discovering and sharing musical experiences are no less genuinely musical activities than composing or playing music. Our reading about music should be only a step toward talking and writing intelligently and effectively about it.

To write effectively about music is inevitably difficult, since by its nature music expresses its ideas nonverbally. As Felix Mendelssohn once pointed out, the difficulty in all writing about music is that the music itself is always perfectly precise and definite, whereas words are imprecise and ambiguous. Nevertheless, we need to communicate about music and our experiences in hearing, playing, and studying it. When we succeed in sharing our thoughts about music, we enrich each other’s musical lives.

It should be a pleasure to hear and study music and to exchange ideas about it. Whenever possible, write about music that matters to you. You might select music for an instrument that you play, or settings of poems that you love. When you do not have the freedom of choice, however, enjoy the opportunity to make the acquaintance of unfamiliar music. Study to understand new pieces and composers; understanding is the first step toward liking a new work. Our interest in our subjects will help to make our writing interesting. If our readers discover that we are not interested in the music, they will soon lose interest also.

There are many types of writing about music, each with particular requirements of content and style. A simple essay might begin by establishing the historical and biographical context in which a musical work was composed and then proceed to an analysis of the music. A more challenging project would be to compare the histories and stylistic characteristics of two or three pieces. Program notes require a special approach from us as musically knowledgeable writers, since the description of the music in program notes must take into account that our audience might not have specialized or technical vocabulary. A performance review or critical essay allows the expression of personal judgments, but it also demands especially clear and well-argued reasoning. Finally, a research paper calls for thorough documentation, careful construction, and a highly precise style.

It generally works best to approach writing about music in an “inductive” way, first establishing facts and then using them as the basis for conclusions and judgments. In other words, start by asking and answering the “what, when, where, and who” questions about the music, then go on to the “how and why.” Do not neglect these latter questions; they are harder ones, but they are the ones that produce interesting and significant results.

Research Sources

When you begin to write about music, you will want to make yourself familiar with some basic research sources and tools. The standard encyclopedic reference source on music in English is The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan, 2001). This monumental work has spawned a variety of smaller dictionaries and books on particular topics that update the main twenty-nine-volume set. It is also available online. Other useful references are Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 9th ed., edited by Nicolas Slonimsky and Laura Diane Kuhn (New York: Schirmer, 2001), for information about performers and composers, and The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 4th edition, edited by Don Michael Randel (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), for discussions of other topics.

It is important to go beyond such basic reference books, of course. The articles in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians generally provide substantial bibliographies that will give you a good start. General and specialized reference sources are listed in Vincent H. Duckles and Ida Reed, Music Reference and Research Materials, 5th edition (New York: Schirmer, 1997). For further material, with brief summaries of the contents of each item, you should consult the series RILM Abstracts (Répertoire internationale de la literature musicale), which is available online. Periodical articles about music are also indexed in The Music Index and Music Article Guide.

Several very extensive series of studies of music history by periods provide more detailed coverage than can be incorporated in any single-volume history. A recent and magisterial survey, although with distinct points of view, is Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music (6 volumes; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). An older series, authored by a large number of specialists, is the New Oxford History of Music published by Oxford University Press. W.W. Norton and Company pioneered in producing a multiple-authored set of classic volumes, The Norton History of Music Series, devoted to the main periods of Western music history. This was followed by a second series, The Norton Introduction to Music History, in a more up-to-date format, and even more recently by a highly readable set of short volumes under the collective title Western Music in Context: A Norton History. Another set of more concise volumes has been published by Prentice-Hall as the Prentice-Hall History of Music Series.

You will also want to use the very best editions of musical scores you can find. The compositions of almost all the leading composers in the Western tradition have been published in complete critical editions that can be relied on for accuracy. A number of major composers’ complete works are currently appearing in new scholarly editions based on the most authoritative original sources and sophisticated methods of research. Less prolific composers whose output may not warrant individual editions are often represented in collected editions. A useful index to all these editions is Anna Harriet Heyer, Historical Sets, Collected Editions, and Monuments of Music: A Guide to Their Contents (Chicago: American Library Association, 1980).

Finally, a word of warning: Avoid such materials as program notes and recording notes or internet websites as sources for information or critical judgments. There are exceptions to this rule, for example when a composer has provided comments on the music especially for a certain performance or recording. But program and recording notes are notoriously unreliable. They may be written by authors who do not have the time or background to base their writing on thorough research and musical analysis. Their purpose also makes it unlikely that they offer balanced and objective information and evaluation. Because many internet sites have no provision for review by experts, as most book publishers have, anyone can post information, regardless of her or his qualifications or the quality of the material. If you do discover interesting facts or ideas in these materials, be sure to verify them in more reliable sources.

Writing about Music, Culture, and the Other Arts

As this book stresses, music cannot be understood separately from the context of history and the development of philosophical and aesthetic thought. In writing about music, we should always keep in mind how music and the lives and thoughts of musicians reflect the times and places from which they come, and how they in turn affect their contemporaries and successors.

When you relate music to works in other fields, be careful to think about them in more substantial terms than superficial details. Consider the aesthetic foundations of the works—what ideas they seek to express and how they seek to express them. Pay attention not only to the use of similar subject matter of works in different art forms but also to similarities in the methods and forms of their construction.

Be sure when you compare music to the visual arts or literature that you draw reasonable relationships. Choose as examples works that have enough in common to make comparison sensible. Examples must come from the same time and place, share subject matter, have the same relative scope, serve similar functions, or in some other way justify comparison. Otherwise any connections between them will seem accidental, and their differences will be meaningless.

Writing about Composers’ Lives

Music always arises out of the experiences of real live people. The biographies of composers can help us to understand much about how and why they produced their music. We should discover as much as we can about the events and ideas that provide the backgrounds for composers’ works and the circumstances and purposes that surrounded the creation of the music.

Although practically anything in composers’ lives might turn out to have affected their music, it is not true that everything affected every work. When writing about music, therefore, you do not need to include every detail of the composer’s life. Concentrate on the facts that surrounded the composition of the specific work or works you wish to discuss. In addition, state explicitly what the connections between the composer’s life and music are.

In writing about the works of artists, it is easy to succumb to the “biographical fallacy” and interpret the works as mirroring the lives of their creators. Artists, poets, and composers express their ideas and reflect their experiences in their works, but they do not present their biographies as directly as writers sometimes seem inclined to think they do. (Even when artists treat autobiographical subjects, they are most likely to do so in ways that reflect considerable imagination, if not downright deception.) Be careful, therefore, not to interpret music pieces as expressing the details of composers’ lives.

On the other hand, our most important understanding of a composer as a person must come from her or his music. The nature of an artist’s life is such that day-to-day or personal matters hold a relatively insignificant position in comparison to the art itself. Insipid musical ideas and undisciplined musical forms cannot be redeemed by the observation that the composer was kind, generous, or in any other way admirable as a person. By the same token, profound musical insights and masterful handling of musical materials can overshadow a composer’s objectionable character traits or disagreeable personal behavior. To the extent that we care that a composer is a musician, the music is the most important evidence of the composer’s biography.

Descriptive and Analytical Writing

Music itself should always be at the heart of your writing, but you will probably discover that to write successfully about music itself is difficult. One of the most frustrating types of writing to read is the essay about music that merely consists of a guided tour through the score or a blow-by-blow account of a performance. We soon give up reading such descriptions in frustration. If we want to know how the music goes, we would prefer to go directly to a performance, a recording, or a score. Of course, there is much to be said for effective descriptions of particular things that take place in a piece of music. When you write about music, be as simple, direct, and precise as possible. You must master a certain vocabulary of musical terms and learn to use them properly, but avoid using technical jargon when ordinary language will do.

Be sure you choose analytical methods appropriate to the music you discuss. According to a long tradition, curricula for music theory and analysis concentrate on the study of triadic, functional harmony. This theoretical approach is not generally appropriate for music other than that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however. Nevertheless, you should not shy away from analyzing and writing about earlier and later music. For the earlier periods in the Western musical tradition a basic understanding of the church modes and the principles of intervallic consonance and dissonance provide the foundations for harmonic analysis. Discussing the most complicated analytical problems of early music, those of fourteenth-century rhythm, requires in addition a bit of skill in arithmetic. The analysis of some music from the twentieth century and later, especially pieces in free atonal and serial styles, can be quite challenging and profits from some special techniques, also. Remember that in most cases composers have developed their musical styles without waiting for theorists to design analytical techniques to explain it. Writers about music are still working out the necessary methods to deal with recent styles. Furthermore, at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries, pieces sometimes create their own stylistic and structural rules, so that we have to formulate analytical approaches to reflect those.

A useful book on analysis is Jan LaRue, Guidelines for Style Analysis, 2nd edition (Warren, Mich.: Harmonie Park Press, 1992). It provides a systematic approach to the various components of musical style (sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, growth) and has established some standard symbols for identifying elements of a piece of music and methods for diagramming musical structures.

Writing musical analysis must then go beyond description and beyond naming the various events in a work. Identifying harmonies, devices of counterpoint, and standard musical forms is only the beginning. Analysis should undertake to answer the more challenging questions of how musical elements interact to make an effective work, the functions of harmonic progressions for which we have no conventional identifiers, why the form of a piece or movement departs from standard procedures. These questions and others like them are difficult to answer, but they hold the reader’s interest because they probe the musical character of the individual work.

Analysis should eventually lead to broader and deeper insights about a work. Its direct purpose is to show how the different elements of style work together in the music. Its ultimate goal, like that of every aspect of writing about music, should be the understanding of the ideas a musical work expresses.

Writing Style

Because music is an art, writing about it presents special problems of literary style. The material about which we are writing has sensuous and subjective qualities that we cannot easily translate into language. We cannot do justice to the music if we try to avoid those qualities, but neither can we allow them to carry us away.

The sensuous nature of musical material requires vivid and specific descriptions. Try to write about the things that take place in a piece of music with the most explicit nouns and active verbs you can find. Do not avoid adjectives and adverbs either. We cannot increase the value of our discourse about music by adopting a tone of artificial objectivity and neutrality. To describe a melody as conjunct may be accurate, but the description is so empty that it does not distinguish between the fluid smoothness of a Renaissance vocal motet line and the energetic wiggling of a Baroque instrumental part. To say that a certain melody is directed upward hardly captures the nature of a particular musical experience, if what the listener hears is a brilliant trumpet arpeggio that rockets abruptly out of the orchestral texture.

On the other hand, we need to resist any urge to indulge in flamboyant imagery or fanciful metaphors in our writing. The romanticism of a few generations ago produced many amusing examples of this sort of “purple prose.” A violin line may wiggle, but it is not like a worm; the tone of a trumpet is often brilliant, but it does not call the orchestra to arms.

Another principle to remember is to write about the music directly. Focus on the music’s history, purposes, character, and construction. Let those factors support any opinions you may want to present. In the context of well-presented evidence a critical judgment should not be mistaken for a statement of fact. When you come to express your impressions and judgments, you can generally do so without prefacing each statement with the words “I think” (or something deadly, such as “In the present writer’s opinion”). To begin with “I think” also has the disadvantage of turning the sentence into a statement about the writer rather than about the music. Your reader is likely to be more interested in reading about music than about you and will learn more about you from what you have to say about music than from what you say about yourself, anyway.

In expressing your judgments and particularly in writing conclusions, make sure that general statements really follow from the facts that you have already presented about the music. An unfortunately frequent type of conclusion in student papers observes, for example, that Beethoven was one of the greatest composers who ever lived, that everyone should know his music, and that his works will continue to be played and appreciated as long as civilization lasts. All this may be true, but it is unlikely that any particular essay has demonstrated it. When in doubt about the ending of your essay, consider whether perhaps a simple summary conclusion will make a good ending or whether it might be best simply to stop.

Some Practical Considerations

When you begin any kind of writing, consider your subject and your reader. Be sure that the subject is appropriate to your interests and abilities, the medium in which you are writing, and your reader. Keep in mind your readers’ reason for reading your work, their technical knowledge, and how much background information they will already have. Decide what the most important points are that you wish readers to understand, and how to organize and present them in convincing fashion. Think about how much background and explanation you need to supply.

When you have collected your information, analyzed the music, and decided on a general approach, make an outline. The purpose of the outline is to allow you to organize your information and thoughts without having to concern yourself with the problems of creating elegant prose. Do not hesitate to try more than one outline, if you can envision more than one way to arrange your material, then choose the best of your options. In outlining, try to make sure that each outline entry has real content; a good way to do this is to make a sentence outline, in which each entry is a complete sentence with its own subject and verb. Check your outline to make sure that it allows for everything you want to say; if it does not, you may find that when you try later to include additional items, the flow of the writing become difficult to follow.

Perhaps the most difficult stage for most writers is the time when they sit facing a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen and have to begin. The best solution is simply to start, without concern for polish, and to get your thoughts on paper or your computer. You need not start at the beginning of the introduction and work through to the end of the conclusion. It often works better to begin with the straightforward statements of fact or some other stylistically simple portion of the essay. It is much easier to correct and polish rough writing than to create a literary masterpiece in your head before starting to write at all. Even if you discard entire paragraphs, you have wasted no more time than if you had spent the same amount of time just staring at a blank page.

Do not forget to give credit for any quoted words, facts, or ideas you have taken from others. Plagiarism includes not only failing to identify quotations but also neglecting to acknowledge and cite sources for information and ideas. In different types of writing credit is given in different ways. Less formal writing, such as program notes or reviews, generally allows for acknowledgment within the course of the prose—readers of performance notes or the daily newspaper do not expect footnotes. More formal papers such as research papers require detailed citations, either as footnotes or with parenthetical references in the text. Whichever system you use, refer constantly to a standard style manual so that your references will follow a conventional form that readers can easily interpret.

Once you have completed your draft, reread and critique it carefully and objectively. You might want to check the following, making several passes through the draft, if necessary:

  • Introduction. Does the essay begin in such a way that it catches your reader’s interest? Is your subject or main point clearly stated? Can your reader get a good sense of the approach that you have taken?
  • Statements of fact. Are all the statements of fact true? Are they well supported by documentation or analysis? Are they clearly and objectively stated? Is each one necessary? Are they presented in the best order?
  • Paragraph organization. Does each paragraph have a single topic? Is the topic clearly presented to the reader in a topic sentence (usually the first sentence of the paragraph)? Do the paragraphs lead logically from each to the next?
  • Opinions and conclusions. Are your opinions logically and clearly based on the facts as you have presented them? Are your judgments and conclusions objective and fair?
  • General style. Have you kept the music in the forefront of the reader’s attention? Have you achieved the tone you intended? Have you used the best words to say what you meant? Are too many sentences short and choppy or long and complicated? Have you double-checked for grammatical errors arising from the revision process and for typographical errors? Have you read the essay aloud, listening to hear whether it sounds natural and pleasant?

A thorough writers’ guide specifically directed toward musical writing is Demar Irvine, Irvine’s Writing about Music, 3rd ed., revised and enlarged by Mark A. Radice (Portland, Ore.: Amadeus, 1999). This book offers helpful suggestions about the step-by-step mechanical procedures of writing a paper, general rules of grammar and principles of style, and comments on different types of writing. Its models for footnote references and bibliographic form are unfortunately now outdated and should not be used. A more concise book of the same type, illustrating more up-to-date styles, is Jonathan Bellman, A Short Guide to Writing About Music, 2nd ed. (New York: Pearson, 2007). A small handbook giving up-to-date formats as well as other technical recommendations is D. Kern Holoman, Writing About Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988).

For most of us writing is not primarily an art but a craft. Like any other craft it is not automatic; it requires attention to technical details, trial and criticism, and much practice. It is worth the time, effort, and thought needed to do it well. Also like any other craft it grows more satisfying as we work harder at it. Experiment with different approaches and styles in writing about music and develop your enjoyment of this aspect of musical experience.

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